July 13, 2020
I’m a hunter who prefers to get close to the game I’m hunting. I’ll almost always trade a chancy long shot for the work involved in reducing the range, even if I know that I risk spooking game by closing the distance.
But there are times when I simply can’t get closer, or when an animal hangs tantalizingly close at the edge of my effective range.
In those cases, I’m tempted to chance a shot, knowing that the odds are I’ll make a clean kill. But ethical hunters shouldn’t deal merely in probable odds, so I almost always stand down, pledging to do whatever I can to extend my range before I encounter that situation again.
If you’ve been in that same situation, then this is the season to make good on your pledge. This is the time to practice with your bow or your rifle to get comfortable with increasing distance. You don’t do that by guessing that you can make the shot. You do it by proving it, then verifying it over and over, then extending your range farther yet.
The first piece of gear you need for each of the following skills, regardless of whether you shoot a bow or a rifle, is a laser rangefinder. In order to prove up on your effective range, you have to know what the range is. A good rangefinder costs a couple hundred dollars, but it’s money well spent.
Once you’ve set up several long-range targets at known distances, use the following exercises to hone your skills. All of them have worked for me.
For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to stick with compound bows, and I’m going to bet your bow is equipped with a multi-pin sight. That’s great, since it’s the best tool for the drills we’re going to walk through.
My baseline sighting pin is 20 yards, and I march out the remaining four pins in my five-pin sight in 10-yard increments. That means my lowest (farthest distance) pin is at 60 yards. Now, before we talk about ethical range as opposed to effective range, let me tell you that before I launch an arrow at an animal 50 yards or farther away, everything needs to be perfect: broadside or quartering away, little wind and demonstrated accuracy at that distance.
That means establishing a baseline for accuracy at any distance. First, let’s take that 20-yard pin and raise it up to 10 yards. In order to be proficient at longer distances, you need to be proficient at closer distances. At 10 yards, you should be able to stack five arrows in a fist-sized group. Keep shooting until you achieve that.
Now, move to your next pin, which we’ll place at 20 yards. You should be able to cover that group of five arrows with your open hand. Shoot at 30 yards until you can group five arrows in the space of a ball cap. By the time you move out to 40 yards, your arrow dynamics will really come into sharp focus. You’ll start to see some erratic groups, which brings us to our first tip.
1. Sort Your Arrows
Most arrows will group pretty well inside 30 yards. Beyond that, small variations will start to open your group. In order to determine which shafts are true, you need to develop an identification system. I do this by numbering groups of arrows that share weights, lengths and the same manufacturer and vane style. Then I add a letter to each arrow in that numeric group. So, I’ll have an arrow that is marked 1C on the vane, or 3F, and so on.
If you have one or two designated arrows that always land outside the main group, that’s an indication there’s some imbalance in the construction. Pull those arrows from the team. Replace them with arrows that group with the rest of the bunch.
2. Set Your Pins
Once you’ve selected six arrows that will poke tight groups, you’re ready to set half your pins. These are your three closest pins, whether you establish them at 10, 20 and 25 yards or some other increments. Screw the tightening pins then make index marks on the frame of your bow sight (I like to use fingernail polish) that sets those distances. In case your sight becomes loose, you can reset the pins based on those indices.
Now, march out your remaining two pins, whether you set them at 40 and 50 yards or at 50 and 60 yards, and prove them by shooting groups you can cover with a dinner plate. Until you get those groups, you’re not ready to hunt at those distances.
3. Shoot Off-Balance
Your last bow drill is to get out of your standing, spread-feet pose and shoot in various positions—kneeling, sitting, bending and shooting uphill. All those are scenarios you’re likely to encounter in the field. Apply your same grouping discipline to these off-balance shots, and don’t extend your distance until you can prove your accuracy at closer ranges.
Extending your rifle range requires just as much time and experimentation as you devote to your bow. First, you need to settle on the right ammunition for your particular hunting rifle. Once you’ve accomplished that, and you’re printing one-inch groups at 100 yards off a bench, you’re ready to extend your effective range.
1. Learn Your Reticle
I can’t believe I’m writing this, but most hunters who can centerpunch holes at 100 yards with the center of the crosshair have no idea where bullets are landing at 200 yards and beyond. Your job here is to know where you are hitting at 200, 300 and 400 yards, as well as at distances between those cardinal points.
It’s not hard to do this, but you need to build a map of your scope’s sight picture. I do this by borrowing from middle-school art class. I draw a big circle, then I draw the reticle. Whether my zero is at 100 yards or 200 yards, I then draw my holdover at distances out to as far as I want to hunt, which is generally about 500 yards for most of my rifles. I then tape this map to the stock of my rifle, so I can refer to it at a glance in the field.
2. Get Off the Bench
Once you’ve blueprinted your reticle, it’s time to practice field positions. I almost always have a bipod on my rifle, which gives me stability for longer shots. Use it. Shoot prone. Extend the legs and shoot from a sitting position. Try off-level shots. Use different supports, like fenceposts and truck hoods. You need to apply that same grouping discipline we talked about for bows. Use minute-of-angle measurements, and when you can shoot a minute of angle at one distance, only then should you extend your range.
3. Read the Wind
Not all accuracy can be attributed to distance. You’ll also encounter wind in the real world of hunting, and you need to know how your bullet is affected by breezes just as it is by yardage. This is a harder variable to measure, since the wind is different in almost every situation. Shoot paper targets at various distances and measure the velocity and direction of the wind. Teach yourself how much impact different winds have on your bullet. Once you’ve learned those lessons, you’re ready for your final exam.
4. Test Your Skills
The last detail is entirely up to you. How comfortable do you feel at various distances, whether with a bow or a rifle? Still iffy? Then spend time until you get settled and confident, then extend your range until you reach that same proficiency. That is now your effective range. Don’t exceed it, and you should have all the confidence you need to make that long shot. If you’re uncomfortable, keep practicing. In this case, practice really does make perfect, in understanding not only your own skills, but the capability of your bow or gun.
Once you’ve proven your distance, don’t be shy. Take the shot. Celebrate the success of taking an animal that you worked to get close to, and then harvested with your hard-won skills.